Some baby "experts" say we should teach babies responsibility and respect for rules, including the idea that some things are off limits, by leaving a few fragile things on lower shelves. This idea is sadly misguided. Research shows it teaches kids to be less creative in problem solving when they get older. If we want kids to think outside the box, we can't start them off in life by slapping their hands when they reach for fragile items. Better to just put such things away for now.
But shouldn't kids start to learn self-discipline as toddlers? Yes. Discipline means "to teach" and all humans learn best when they are not emotionally upset (because when we get upset we move into fight or flight, and we stop thinking.) So every time we stay calm, we are modeling self-discipline. And every time we help our child stay calm and think, we are helping him learn self-discipline.
If you want to teach a child values, the best way to do it is by being good role models ourselves and by discussing the choices of everyday life. That means toddlerhood is young to "teach values" verbally, but a perfect time to start teaching values by modeling what you value. There are opportunities for this daily, such as expressing consideration for other humans: "Look, Dylan is sad. Maybe we can cheer him up. Can we share our cookies?"
But of course the most important way our kids learn is by how they're treated. Kids learn respect by being respected. Kids learn consideration by being treated with empathy and consideration.
Kids learn to make good decisions and exercise good judgment by having lots of practice, including the experience of making bad decisions. Naturally, you want them to practice with low-risk decisions: which shirt, which toy, etc. You can also model for her and involve her in decisions: "Hmm...should we bring jackets or not? How cold is it? Do we need an umbrella?" or "It would be fun to stomp in the puddle. But then our feet will be wet, and we will have wet feet all morning. Is it worth it?" Of course, only let her participate in the decision if you're willing to let her get her feet wet, lol!
What about rules for toddlers? Setting and enforcing rules doesn't actually encourage responsibility in children. Setting and enforcing rules encourages obedience. It's fine to have rules, but if there are too many or they are not age-appropriate, then kids rebel and get into power struggles with us, which undermines our authority, and in fact the whole relationship. My rule of thumb is never to set rules just to have them, but for good reasons, like safety. And then, in enforcing them, kids can accept them a whole lot better if we empathize: "I know, you want to climb on the table. You like to see out the window. But it's dangerous, I can't let you climb up there. Here, what if I pick you up so you can look out the window?"
Kids learn responsibility because they want to please their parents, and rise to the occasion, when they are offered age-appropriate responsibility in a non-blaming manner. For a 20-month old, that means that when he spills his milk, you say kindly "Oops, milk spilled. Let's get the paper towels. We always clean up our own messes. Here, Mommy will help." Of course, you will do most of it, but by the time he's four, he will really be cleaning up his own messes.
Kids do best when we not only empathize and respect, but hold high expectations for them. My aspiration is always to set those expectations for them in such a respectful, empathic, manner that my kids will WANT to meet them. After all, the goal is for them to internalize the ability to guide themselves constructively through life, and that is best accomplished by them learning to be gentle with themselves. When people are harsh with themselves, they either get depressed or rebel, for instance by sabotaging a diet. When people are gentle with themselves, they are able to nurture themselves to overcome challenges, and they are nicer not just to themselves but to others.
So can you teach your toddler responsibility? Absolutely. Just remember that 99% of what he learns is from what you're modeling.
Dr. Laura Markham